Sexy sure don't shine the way it used to. There was a time when we coveted itty-bitty innocent kisses (sexy) and the prowess-ful feelin' of holdin' down a man who was born to ramble (sexy). Compared to the Old Time American Cowboy (sexy), Paris Hilton in pastel Ugg boots (not sexy) suggests we're suffering from aesthetic dystopia.
No longer too sexy for our shirts, we've settled for the sock drawer.
So in the twilight of sexiness, we restore our faith in the Boy Next Door, the ever-present everyman who gets by on charm, understated talent and legitimacy. But even the B.N.D. has grown less sexy over the years, having traded itty-bitty kisses for an active account at suicidegirls.com. Hollywood-America's top manufacturer of sexiness-is sputtering creatively, offering little more than ex-pro wrestlers and live-action cartoon heroines.
The time has come for an artist to recall the Bob Marley permutation: a man with average looks who absolutely owns "sexy" through intense talent, sweltering charisma and a transcendent sense of self.
John Butler might be that man. Though a politically minded, dread-headed Australian-American success story, Butler is more like a magnetic older brother than a caricature of hippie idealism. He and the John Butler Trio wholeheartedly support the transformation of glitzy Hollyrock into a more authentic scenery.
"I'm not a bullshitter," he announces over the phone from his home in Melbourne, Australia. "Music is my truth. I'm not trying to tell people what to think or feel. It's just an honest expression of me trying to understand this world and myself. If that comes out overly trite to some people, so be it."
Butler was a mellow, nomadic youth who learned to master his acoustic guitar with a bluesy, finger picking, rootsy style. He attended elementary school in Torrance and high school in Western Australia. He spent his late teens and early 20s in San Diego before his final move back to Australia.
Down Under is where he's became a hero. That's where his latest album, Sunrise Over the Sea, debuted at No. 1 on the charts.
Now, he's returning to San Diego for this year's Street Scene; it's a place where his music formalized, where he started to get it together.
Butler lived in a nice home in North County while here, taking a low-paying job in Encinitas. He hung out on D Street with musicians, hippies, artists and hooligans before the City Council cleaned it up better than June Cleaver. He laughs at the recollection of "Drug Free Zone" signs and revels in the memory of the brotherly street scene that he and his crew created on the sidewalks.
"San Diego was a good place to gather my thoughts," he says. "I swam and skated and tried to surf a little. I was in my first band in San Diego. They had this open-mic night in Cardiff and I did a couple things there. I have a dear place in my heart for the coast there."
When it came time to sell his albums in the States, his first thought was Lou's Records in Encinitas, and Lou's became the first store in the U.S. to carry his stuff. At the 2003 South-by-Southwest Music Festival-a yearly who's-who of emerging bands-Butler's band generated significant buzz. He wasn't short on offers from major record labels, but the young guitarist didn't see a deal he could live with, and decided to remain independent.
Earlier this year, however, he signed a deal with Lava, a subsidiary of Atlantic Records. His first nationally distributed U.S. release hits shelves in about six months.
Sunrise Over Sea boasts the musical spirituality of Ben Harper, experiments with the guitar-wielding sex appeal of Jack Johnson and mines the vocal drama of Eddie Vedder. Butler slips and slides down the neck of his guitar with heart. His intuitive picking style showcases an odd mix of Celtic vibe, gypsy heart and classic-rock resonance.
It's sprawling music that begets lovemaking waltzes that beget touchy-feely environmental love diatribes that surpass any of the expectations of Harper's latest compositions. Butler bellows about love and babies and Mother Earth with so much passion that you'd be heartless not to wholeheartedly want to do something about it yourself.
"It was the expression and sharing that originally got me addicted [to guitar]," he says. "I want people to hear what I hear. Maybe it'll make them feel good, and, hell, it would be nice if we could all feel good together. I guess that's a bit of a love-in, isn't it? It's nice to share a good thing rather than keeping it to yourself."
These days in Australia, John Butler Trio albums just might outnumber dingoes. America has been slow to latch on to the sexy flow of it all, but his shows at the 600-capacity Belly Up Tavern in recent years have nearly sold out.
While Butler realizes that Americans enjoy calling him "the Ben Harper of Australia," he also realizes that Harper didn't get to where he is without a little sacrifice. So this summer, the John Butler Trio will play to 10,000 people at festivals and turn around to 15 people at coffee-shop gigs.
Butler insists that every single note counts. It's when an audience realizes that they are as integral to the performance as the musicians themselves, he says, that a gig takes on a life of its own and people begin to hear the source of his musical addiction.
"I like my career right now. I can play in Australia to 6,000-seat venues and then I can come back to America and play to 300," he laughs. "I try to remember that young bands are ecstatic to have 300 people at a gig. I remember that feeling, and it makes me so excited to be me-just me. No one else."The John Butler Trio plays at Street Scene on Aug. 28. www.street-scene.com.